Transcript: 414. Henrik Lagerlund on Renaissance Skepticism

No doubt that we're in good hands with interview guest Henrik Lagerlund, who brings his expertise in the history of skepticism to bear on the French Renaissance. Including a look ahead to Descartes!

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We're going to talk about skepticism. Let's start with a conceptual overview rather than diving right into the history. What do you understand by the term skepticism and what distinctions should we make between different kinds of skepticism that might help us be ready for the discussion to follow? 

Henrik Lagerlund: Traditionally, almost the only thing that people have met with skepticism in this period is the ancient kind of skepticism. So it's Sextus, who was translated at this time, and also the academic skepticism that's foremost at this time was available through Cicero's Academica. So those are the two that people have usually meant when they talk about skepticism in this time. But I think that that's limited, unfortunately, that there is a back-history to skepticism, which when you get to Descartes, you see that he is aware of a much wider kind of skepticism than just these ancients. The problem of writing the history of skepticism before has been that you limited yourself. Skepticism is either Pyrrhonism or it's academic skepticism. But there is a medieval tradition which has to be taken into account where you have this very strong skepticism, a kind of global skepticism, where what we today would call an external world skepticism that we traditionally think Descartes introduced, but which is strongly available in the 14th century and onwards. There are other more local discussions of skepticism in the scholastic tradition of can we know substances? Can we know through representations? And so forth. But these are available and discussed throughout the medieval tradition. You can construe nominalism as a kind of skepticism, where you're skeptical towards entities like universals, the existence of these ones. You can see, I think, in contemporary discussions, you often see religious skepticism, skepticism towards the existence of God as that kind of skepticism. That was obviously less present in this period, but there's also skeptical arguments against logic, against inference, things like that. So there's a whole variety of discussions that I think one today would call skeptical, but foremost,  having to do with doubt, you can doubt all kinds of things, doubt the existence of God, doubt the existence of the universe and so forth. So I think once one opens up this definition of skepticism to other things than just what Sextus said, or just what the academics said, or what Augustine said that the academics said. You see a much wider discussion in this time, which sets the context, I think, of the 16th century in a much more interesting way than it has been before. 

Peter Adamson: I think that's a really important point that you can be skeptical in a very local domain, or you can be skeptical in a very wide sense, even a global skeptic. You can say, I don't think that I know anything at all on any subject. That would be the most global form of skepticism, perhaps. But you can also say, I'm skeptical about your claim that dinner will be ready on time. So that's not a philosophical skepticism. You could be skeptical only about religious claims or only about metaphysics or something. 

Henrik Lagerlund: Like what Wittgenstein said, you can be skeptical in ordinary discourse like that. But that kind of global skepticism doesn't make sense in that context. 

Peter Adamson: You mentioned these two forms of ancient skepticism, which are going to be important here because they were suddenly available, or available at least as never before, in the time period we're looking at. And you mentioned academic skepticism and Pyrrhonism. Can you explain what you take to be the difference between these two forms of ancient skepticism and maybe then say how well the 16th-century readers understood the difference between them? 

Henrik Lagerlund: The two forms are obviously Pyrrhonism that we get at this time through Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism. So the 16th century is really the period where Sextus, probably at his most influential in the history of philosophy, he was a sort of minor figure, really, and not read basically up until this time. And then you have the other part is the academic skepticism, which at this time they know through Cicero's Academica. And Cicero's Academica was read throughout the Middle Ages, certain periods more than others, but it was available. So we can clearly see the influence through the Middle Ages all the way into the 16th century. And that's important, because even though Sextus sort of pops up as now a new text that gets read in a much wider way than it ever was, Cicero is still there being read at the same time, even more probably so than Sextus actually. So the big difference between these two is that the academic skepticism as it came up and is presented in Cicero is very much a kind of negative skepticism towards the possibility of empirical knowledge or knowledge through the senses. It's really directed at the Stoics, their idea of how you can acquire these kataleptic impressions or infallible beliefs. While the difference between that view and Sextus, as Sextus presents the Pyrrhonian view, is that a Pyrrhonian doesn't hold beliefs, either positive or negative. The Pyrrhonist is meant not to have beliefs. And also that will lead the Pyrrhonist to this state of calm or ataraxia in Greek. And that's an important difference because that aspect is not in the academic tradition. So this practical aspect of skepticism, that it leads to this state of calm, that aspect is not present before the 16th century. It comes with Sextus into 16th century and early modern philosophy, that skepticism could have a goal. 

Peter Adamson: And one way to express the difference between these two schools might be to say, first of all, there's this thing about achieving calm by being in suspension of judgment. But also, I take it that if you said to Sextus, well, is empirical knowledge possible or not, he would say, I don't know, I suspend judgment about that. Whereas the academic skeptics would say, no, it's not possible. So that's like a really clear difference between the schools, right? 

Henrik Lagerlund: Yeah, definitely. 

Peter Adamson: Did these two forms of skepticism get taken up in a way that involved awareness of the difference between them, or were they transformed in any way by readers in the 16th century?

Henrik Lagerlund: The most important aspect here is that the way it's taken up, when Sextus is translated in 1562 and published, there's an introduction there of the concept of doubt. So that is very central because doubt doesn't really play a role in the way that the ancient Greek formulation of Pyrrhonism is presented by Sextus. So you have this idea that you can be at the loss of something, but you don't really doubt, because doubt is a difficult concept. Doubt presupposes that you know something to be able to doubt. And that is, of course, contrary to the core of Pyrrhonism. 

Peter Adamson: Can you explain that? Why would you need to know something in order to be in doubt? 

Henrik Lagerlund: To be able to doubt that something is a prime, for example, you have to already know what a prime is. 

Peter Adamson: You mean a prime number? 

Henrik Lagerlund: A prime number, yeah. So you can be at a loss, without presupposing that you claim anything to be true. And that's more of an accurate description of, I think, how Sextus describes the skeptic. The skeptics are at a loss. We can't say that this is right. We can't say that the other thing is right. So we suspend belief. We suspend judgment. So we're at a loss. But we don't doubt. The skeptic doesn't doubt. I think this concept was introduced into the discussion of skepticism by Augustine already. And then it became foremost as an interpretation of academic skepticism. But then it becomes a long tradition of characterizing skepticism in terms of doubt, that I think by the 16th century is basically taken for granted. So when the translators of Sextus are presented with this view, they then introduce a concept of doubt into the text, which I think is probably a wrong interpretation of the classical sort of Pyrrhonian position. When Montaigne and Charron and later thinkers read Sextus, they get this idea that it's a skepticism involving the concept of doubt, which then naturally also dominates the early modern discussion. 

Peter Adamson: I want to get to Montaigne and Charron in just a second. But first, I had one other question with the historical context, namely, to what extent skepticism in this period is a response to what was going on politically, like the Reformation, the Wars of Religion, and so on. 

Henrik Lagerlund: That is a complicated question. Of course, it has been particularly in relation to how some interpreters read Montaigne, how some read Charron, that it is they're using skepticism as a kind of defense of Catholicism or in this debate going on for Montaigne, it's primarily between Catholicism and Calvinism, and for him is the sort of target. An aspect that is very much used here is the idea that's present in Sextus, that since the skeptic doesn't really hold any beliefs, or sort of suspends belief, that means that the skeptic still needs to live in a society, still needs to be there to be able to live. So the skeptic then is supposed to follow the tradition. And that becomes an important aspect of the way a skeptic lives. The skeptic suspends beliefs, but still accepts laws, still accepts tradition, still accepts religion. And this kind of conservatism, or whatever it is, in skepticism gets used by thinkers like Montaigne to argue for holding on to beliefs and faith in this very difficult time that the 16th century is. 

Peter Adamson: So just as I might, as a skeptic, without having any beliefs about how digestion works, I still eat when I'm hungry because I just kind of follow my …

Henrik Lagerlund: No, yeah. You follow this appearance, as they say. 

Peter Adamson: And in the same way, I stick with Catholicism because it's kind of there, and it's holding society together, and I don't have to have some kind of dogmatic commitment to it. 

Henrik Lagerlund: No, exactly. Skepticism doesn't imply some revolution and changing of society. 

Peter Adamson: I think that's interesting that skepticism comes out, at least on this telling, skepticism comes out as being conservative rather than potentially revolutionary. Because we might have assumed that being skeptical, in the context of a very religious society, would lead to something like atheism. But here it's exactly the reverse. 

Henrik Lagerlund: Exactly the reverse. And of course, that has been used as a criticism of skepticism. 

Peter Adamson: Well, let's now delve into these specific thinkers who we've mentioned in passing and let's start with Montaigne. So actually something we haven't mentioned yet is that you wrote a whole book, which came out fairly recently, about the history of skepticism. And in that book, when you're talking about 16th-century skepticism, you say that, contrary to what a lot of scholars have argued or maybe just assumed, it's actually not that clear that Montaigne was a skeptic. First of all, I like that you're skeptical about whether he's a skeptic. I find that very pleasing. But second of all, I wanted to ask you why you say that in the book. 

Henrik Lagerlund: I based this on the reading of his Apology for Raymond Sebond. Even though he uses skepticism, he uses both the Pyrrhonian skepticism presented by Sextus and he uses the academic skepticism presented by Cicero. He doesn't at the end come out to endorse any of this. He uses the skeptics to sort of criticize reason, that reason and rationality can help us to live our lives, and in the discussion of religion, can actually give us support or grounds for our belief in Catholicism. But he ends in a very sort of pessimistic tone that reason can't really help us, but God can't really help us either in some sense, because we don't know if we're saved. We don't know if God will give us grace. So he has this Augustinian background. So faith really is in the end what we have, this faith that will save us. As I read it, it's not primarily an endorsement of skepticism as such. And people have argued that what does come out is this fideism. Perhaps you can say that that's where he ends, but it isn't a clear skeptical position. 

Peter Adamson: It's more like skepticism is a stepping stone towards fideism. 

Henrik Lagerlund: Exactly, yeah, which I think was a very common way of using skepticism, actually. 

Peter Adamson: And do you think the same thing is true of Montaigne’s friend Charron, who's often assessed as pretty much just having repeated ideas from Montaigne, whether or not that's fair? At least when it comes to skepticism, is his stance pretty much the same, would you say? 

Henrik Lagerlund: I wouldn't say so. I think there's a difference in emphasis between them, I think, that is interesting, where I would interpret, and I do in the book, Charron as much more of an academic skeptic, much clearer on his use of Cicero and his negative attitude to knowledge, to the possibility of knowledge. There's a slight difference in emphasis, I think. It's a much clearer Ciceronian aspect to Charron than there is to Montaigne. But obviously, these two were close. They knew each other and probably discussed skepticism. 

Peter Adamson: And do you think that Charron, and maybe this question could also be posed about Montaigne, but let's just think about Charron, because he also has a pretty strong moral theory – maybe theory is not the right word – but he has this kind of stoic-leaning, ethical stance as well. And I'm wondering how that's compatible with what you were just saying about him being a more full-blooded academic skeptic. 

Henrik Lagerlund: That's right. He has this idea that we follow nature, and nature gives this guide the way we should live, or this wisdom that he talks about. For him, it's also not that we can know that this is the right way to live. He gives us arguments and reasons for that, but he doesn't strongly endorse this as something we can know. So there is this skepticism underneath, even though he has this moral theory on top of it. 

Peter Adamson: His ethical views then would be just another case of following appearances, like we were saying before. 

Henrik Lagerlund: I would think so, yeah. In Charron, you see an emphasis on Carneades and on probabilism, which is not really present in Montaigne. You can see how you can use Carneades as a basis for following what is probable. In that sense, he's a clear academic skeptic. 

Peter Adamson: There's one other skeptic that I had just covered in the previous episode who I wanted to ask you about, and this is Francisco Sanches, who is from the Iberian Peninsula, but was also active in France. 

Henrik Lagerlund: In Bordeaux, as well. 

Peter Adamson: Yeah, so there's connections. 

Henrik Lagerlund: All three of them have some kind of association with... 

Peter Adamson: I have wondered whether there was something in the water in Bordeaux, or maybe the wine, actually. 

Henrik Lagerlund: Maybe there is, maybe in the wine. 

Peter Adamson: Yeah. Listeners can write in to tell us whether Bordeaux makes them skeptical, the wines from that region. In his case, it seems like he's pretty clearly a very aggressive skeptic, right? He literally writes a book called That Nothing Can Be Known. But on the other hand, again, here, there may be a nuance because at the end, he seems to be holding out the prospect of some kind of empirically based, if not knowledge, then at least way of forming better beliefs or something like that. Reading his work, I actually wondered whether, although he's apparently a very aggressive skeptic, actually all he's doing is saying, well, if knowledge is what you scholastics say it is, then knowledge is unattainable. So we need something else, which is of course very different from being a real skeptic. Do you think that that's right? 

Henrik Lagerlund: I think basically that's where I land, although we can't really say much more because this is really what he promises, that nothing can be known. And then he says that he will go on to develop a new method, a new, more positive view of scientific knowledge. I think we're forced to draw the conclusion that he's a skeptic, because that's all we have to base our assertions on. If we are to believe his own words, he wanted to do something more. He never did it. What we have today in That Nothing Can Be Known is a clear skeptical treatise, and a skeptical treatise that is aimed at an Aristotelian account of knowledge, which is not of course something that figures at all much in either Montaigne or in Charron. 

Peter Adamson: Yeah. He's more like someone like Lorenzo Valla, polemicizing against scholasticism. 

Henrik Lagerlund: Exactly. 

Peter Adamson: Well, I was actually just wondering, does that mean that Sanches actually isn't as new as people sometimes say he is? Because actually there is this kind of longstanding humanist project of tearing apart the foundations of scholasticism. 

Henrik Lagerlund: In some sense, I think that's right. He isn't as novel as some people have claimed. I would agree to that, because they're not only in the humanist tradition, even in the scholastic tradition. I mean, there's a long, standard concern about Aristotelian method and Aristotelian theories of knowledge that it is way too demanding and it's not possible to achieve. We have the Buridanian discussion from the 14th century, which continues all the way into the 16th century, which is very much problematizing and rethinking what the foundations of knowledge are, in an Aristotelian context. 

Peter Adamson: That's a great point actually that scholasticism had the seeds of skepticism against scholasticism within itself. I mean, as you mentioned at the beginning in 14th-century scholasticism, we even have people wondering whether God is deceiving us about everything we believe about the external world, right? 

Henrik Lagerlund: Exactly. Yeah. 

Peter Adamson: That leads us naturally on to one last person who we must mention, who is of course Descartes, the author of a thought experiment where it's not God, but an evil demon who's deceiving you about everything you believe. And he's not too far away now. So looking ahead to him, to what extent do you think that we should see these figures we've been discussing now, like Sanches, for example, as an important precursor or source for Descartes? Or to what extent do you think Descartes really is doing something fundamentally different? 

Henrik Lagerlund: Traditionally, Descartes has been interpreted as someone who answers the challenge of the skepticism of the late 16th century. And his project then becomes kind of an anti-skeptical project. I think most scholars have sort of moved away from that interpretation of Descartes. He wasn't really concerned with rejecting skepticism. His project was something else, something different. And then there's different ideas of what that project was. But I think it's clear that both Charron and Montaigne is a background to Descartes in the sense that he read them, obviously. He knew them. They were so well read. Charron's Of Wisdom is one of the most read philosophical works in French at this time. And it was so early, as well, translated into English. It had a really widespread reach. So certainly he knew them. But Descartes's knowledge of tradition and of history of philosophy is much better than he himself liked to present. He was obviously educated at the foremost institute in Europe at the time. And he got a very solid background, knowledge of scholasticism and other things at La Flèche. When he writes in the Meditations, and also in the Discourse, he uses the skeptical arguments. And he knows them from this discussion in the late 16th century. And he knows them from an earlier discussion in the scholastic tradition. So when he uses the evil demon argument or the dream argument or the illusion argument in the first Meditation and in the Discourse, he knows these arguments as well. Even Hobbes in his objection to the Meditation complains that Descartes was such an original and interesting thinker, why would he bring up all these old arguments about skepticism? This is well-tread waters. Why? Why? 

Peter Adamson: Hobbes was not fooled by the claims of originality. 

Henrik Lagerlund: Yeah, exactly. And Descartes, when he answers, he says that, no, I'm not claiming to be original. I'm not bringing out these arguments because they're new and I have done something special with them. He's bringing out these arguments because he has a specific purpose with them. And that is to get rid of everything that we can get, possibly from the senses or anywhere else. He wants to isolate ourselves into our minds. And once we've gotten rid of everything, he can ask the question, is there anything else? Is there now still something we can know? And that's when he finds the cogito. So for him, the skeptical arguments are means to a certain purpose. I think the way is for Montaigne as well. So it's not skepticism so much for itself. It's skepticism as a tool or as a means to something else. So I think Descartes is very well aware of the skeptical discussion. I don't know whether he actually read Sextus, but he certainly read people that commented on Sextus. 


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